VANESSA PRAGER IN LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY 2015. PORTRAITS BY CARA ROBBINS. HAIR/MAKEUP: BLONDIE FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT USING ARMANI.
In her new body of work “Dreamers,” Los Angeles-based artist Vanessa Prager deviates from her previously small, photo-realistic and musically-oriented oil paintings, moving toward large-scale abstractions of the human face. While the subject matter is continuous, depicting portraits of fictitious people perhaps inspired by those around her, the faces are hardly recognizable under heavy brushstrokes of oil paint and plaster. The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow night at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, but last night comedian (and Prager collector) Fred Armisen hosted a private reception in her honor. Last week, Armisen visited Prager’s studio in Glendale, California, where they spoke about everything from how they met to unncessary rules. We listened in from New York.
VANESSA PRAGER: Hello?
FRED ARMISEN: Hello! How’s it going?
PRAGER: Good, how are you?
ARMISEN: Good. Thank you for being so open with your time, with your schedule.
PRAGER: And thank you!
ARMISEN: Oh, my pleasure. This is a subject matter I could talk about forever.
PRAGER: We met on your last Portlandia shoot, right? For season four?
ARMISEN: Yeah, that was for season four. Carrie Brownstein and I, and also IFC, decided that we should have the promotional artwork be artist-specific. So Alex Prager, your sister, we and IFC are fans of. We started working with Alex and that was great, but during that time, that’s where I met you and found out that you’re an artist. The thing that struck me was that your whole family was together—your mom was there—and you were very supportive of each other. It’s kind of rare to see that, so it gave me a trust and interest. Meeting you, I would say, “This family is artistic, therefore, this must be good work, this person is a good artist and something worthwhile.” And I was right. I don’t know if I’m remembering this right—I think I got a link to your artwork. I love painters because I don’t paint, so I get to enjoy art; I like collecting paintings. So I saw all these pieces online and they looked great. I ended up arranging to go to your studio in the Valley—
PRAGER: It’s not technically in the Valley. Is it the Valley?
ARMISEN: First of all, the Valley would be a compliment. I love the Valley!
PRAGER: But if you’re in the Valley, you’re not in L.A. [laughs] I feel like Glendale is this weird hole in the world. It’s not cool, but that’s why I love it. It’s nothing; it’s not related to anything. It doesn’t hold any idea. It doesn’t have any established aesthetic.
ARMISEN: It’s a little industrial, which I like. But because I’m not from L.A., to me, all of it is the Valley. Anything that’s not downtown or Hollywood, I’m just like, “Oh it’s the Valley.” Anyway, when I saw [your work] in person, it was a different experience and I immediately became a fan, and still am. I look at so much and I’ve loved so much of it, but you know how art is. There’s just one piece that speaks to you and you’re like, “Oh. That one.” I got one called, “Kiss me, Kate.”
PRAGER: You had just moved into your house! You were looking for anything. I mean, not anything, anything great.
ARMISEN: Yeah, and I got it, and it’s up in my house proudly.
PRAGER: I don’t watch much TV so I’m not super familiar with everything going on in the world, but I remember when I met you on that shoot, you were so interested in everybody. There were so many random extras and you were walking around chatting with people. You were engaged and you were asking them questions. Do you see that as a way people interact with your art?
ARMISEN: Absolutely. There’s that, and there’s thinking about the future and looking back. I know there’s going to be a day when I will look back and go, “Remember when there was a photo shoot for this show and we had these artists and these people,” and it’ll seem so long ago. I’ll want to have memories of actually enjoying it as opposed to stressing out and going, “Are we sure we’re getting this?”
PRAGER: I feel like often comedians are supposed to be the most depressed people in the world, but you’re the opposite of that. Do you think that’s part of it? You’re just kind of there, doing things regardless of what it is? You’re not stressed about it?
ARMISEN: Yeah, it comes a little bit from the fact that I started very late in comedy. I spent most of my 20s playing music. I was in a band and we worked really hard and did not get very far. I was really close to being this guy who used to be in this band who is still playing and trying to get some recordings together, but I got really lucky. That’s never lost in me, that I went through Saturday Night Live. There’s no judgment on bands that continue on who aren’t popular; some people get enjoyment out of it. I’m just not one of those people. I wanted attention.
PRAGER: That’s interesting, ’cause I’ve been an artist for 10 years and it’s been my passion and my drive, but I want to continue to be able to do it, and somewhere along the way you begin to appreciate any success, anytime you get one of those interactions with fans who’re like, “We appreciate the work that you make.” That’s important as any person, but especially as an artist because otherwise everything’s bad. [laughs] There’s always a higher bar [as an artist] and there’s a fine line between appreciating where you’re at, what you’ve got, or what you’ve just made, and also knowing what the next thing is that you’re reaching for. Do you agree?
ARMISEN: Yes, I agree. I couldn’t put into words what I liked most about your work, but one of the things I’m realizing now is that there’s no judgment. Sometimes people have some kind of statement, there’s some kind of criticism, which drives me crazy. The [painting] that I got, there’s just no comment. It’s just, “These are people looking at me,” and that’s all it needs to be. Am I wrong about that?
PRAGER: No, you’re totally right. That’s something I strive for. You want to make an image that stands on its own, but I don’t want to be making hardline or aggressive statements. That’s just not the kind of person I am. I know those images exist and that’s great, but I like things that look pretty and things that inspire people to think in general. It’s a mood or vibe that I’m going for opposed to a specific thing that I want people to think or feel.
ARMISEN: And what are some reactions you get? Someone looks at your work, what is the first thing they see?
PRAGER: It really is dependent on the person. I get a lot of people putting stories into it. They’ll say, “This reminds me of when I was growing up with my mother and we went to the lake and we saw this bird,” something that’s for them, and that’s why they love it. Sometimes people aren’t as nostalgic and don’t have as many memories tied to things. They’re much more interested in, “How did you make something like that? How do you make a nice picture?” That mood, that juxtaposition of emotions that people get out of each piece, is interesting.
ARMISEN: There’s a bit of a shadowy, dark quality to some of them that I like. It’s not only pure or celebration.
PRAGER: A pretty picture to me will always include that. It’s not the classic pretty that I’m going for, it’s the kind of pretty that I understand, which is the kind that will include dark moments, experiences, heartbreak, and anything else that goes with life. That’s the kind of thing that makes sense to me.
ARMISEN: Where do you come from as far as how you got there? Was there school involved? Were there heroes involved? What led you through it?
PRAGER: Basically, I went to boarding school in Oregon [where] I started drawing in my free time, graduated high school, came back to L.A., and moved in with my sister. I realized that I needed a job and didn’t want to get a normal job. It just repelled me. I did not want to sit at a desk. My sister had some artist friends, and I was like, “They get to do what they want,” and I wanted to do what I wanted. So then I went really into it. I didn’t go to school; I didn’t take any classes. Maybe I should have at that point, but I just started picking up books, and the internet was around. I started reading and scouring everything I could, practicing day in and day out. It all came from there. I started having shows…
ARMISEN: Did you say, “practicing day in and day out”?
PRAGER: Yeah. I consider it practicing because I was making pictures of my friends, just drawing more, fooling around. I started painting when I was 19. I got one of these how-to-oil-paint kits and was like, “Oh, I can cover more space with a paint brush.” It was about using materials. I was reading so much material on how-to and watching painting videos, and it’s really heavy with rules. I went through a lot of technique for years. That was me practicing, just going through trying different techniques, different imagery, trying to find what I like. At the end I was like, “Basically, you can do whatever you want. There are no rules!”
ARMISEN: Rules are really weird things, aren’t they? I feel like the more I do something, the more I see through rules. I see the reason to ignore it, but at the same time, “That’s why they made that rule!”
PRAGER: You make the rule for yourself. Say you had a little friend and you gave him all your rules, it might not make so much sense to him. He might change them, it might make him miss a step; it might trip him up a little.
ARMISEN: Some rules are good. For example, off the top of my head, let’s say a stand-up comedian or a talk show host wearing a nice suit—as a ponderer, I grew up like, “Why don’t they just go up there in their army jacket? They’re fine!” Then little by little, you think, “You know, it’s kind of nice to look nice, like you made the effort.” Then you’re back at rule one; that was the original rule.
PRAGER: I would say that rules are there but you can question them. There’s a freedom of movement. You don’t put a lot of rules on your characters now that I’m thinking about it. They do very specific actions, but then people will lay down their rules about that person. How did you get from music to [comedy], though?
ARMISEN: I was in a band and it wasn’t working out the way I wanted. Then somehow, little by little, I started doing a couple comedy things. I made a video of interviewing people in 1998 at South By Southwest. It just took off. It led the way for me. All of a sudden I was being asked to do more and more comedy things. There was this message from the world saying, “Maybe you should go this direction.”
PRAGER: You have to listen to the world a little bit, even if you’re frustrated and anti-world, you kind of have to go with the breeze at times. That’s how I feel like I got to this series specifically, as opposed to other things I worked on. It was being willing to listen. I think as artist, there’s certain rules or concepts and not wanting to change things, but then I feel like once you’re more free and fluid about things—hear and see more ways to go about it—you use those things to your advantage.
ARMISEN: Plus, it’ll lend itself to future works. I’m assuming you want to keep going?
PRAGER: Oh no. I’m done. [laughs] No I totally want to keep going. I have so many more ideas. That’s what I was saying earlier: it’s never good enough for me. I’ve learned to acknowledge where I’m at and appreciate the work I’ve made, but that just opens up the door, inspires me to make something else. Do you do that with your seasons?
ARMISEN: We purposefully leave some space in between. We go, “Okay let’s just not think about it for a minute,” so we can see where everything landed, what people reacted to. But we definitely map it out. We definitely think: “This season it’s going to be longer story arcs,” which has worked out well for us.
PRAGER: But it must be really nice working with a little group effort. Painting can be kind of solitary. I always try to think of more ways to include people. That’s where the shows come in I guess.
ARMISEN: I don’t know any artists or painters, like, “Oh that painting group.”
PRAGER: The only thing I can imagine is collaborating in different mediums, [but] I can’t imagine working alone forever. I’m not saying I won’t always paint, because I probably will, but it would be nice to interact with artists.
ARMISEN: Now I want to write down this idea of a group of artists who treat it like a band. Like, “Who made the painting?” “All four of us did.”
PRAGER: But then they’ll start to get all moody as they go along, like, “No, I made that one painting…”
ARMISEN: Just like a band. [both laugh] Wait, what do you see if you look into the future? What do you hope happens? What would be a nice, “I hope my work is seen as blank?” or “I’m going to start using a different format.” What would you like?
PRAGER: There are so many other art forms that are of this modern world, so getting it out there. The world population since I was born has doubled. It’s insane how fast the world is growing. It’s not the same as it was 100 years ago. That concept of tons of people who are also trying to make imagery and get ideas across to people is always something I’m thinking about. I’m in the wrong medium to be doing that, but I like that I am. [laughs]
ARMISEN: It could be the right medium. I mean, the population increasing, some of it could be in countries we haven’t thought of making art in. I’ve never entertained making comedy in China. Like what world is that? I don’t know how they would perceive art or sketch comedy. It’s not a matter of intellect; it’s a matter of language.
PRAGER: Art is a universal language in a sense, so you’re always looking to find the thing most people understand or that people understand in general. It should transcend. There is a way for transcendence, I think.
ARMISEN: I have hope for it. It’s already years ago now, but there’s that South Korean music artist Psy, who had that hit song and it was a hit song here. I’m like, “Wait a minute. There’s a chance. There’s a way we can have language not be such an important part of comedy.”
PRAGER: Totally. There are so many disagreements in the world, but I like the idea of people agreeing on something like art.
ARMISEN: So what about your new show? Are you excited?
PRAGER: Yeah, I’m excited to share it and get reactions. Since I didn’t go to art school, I feel like exhibiting is my biggest way of learning. I’m not trying to say anything particular, but some sort of emotion is my job. Some of it’s really big now.
ARMISEN: That was a real wow, by the way. As far as paintings go, I always think about what it’s like to move them and hang them up and hope they don’t drop. To me, that seems like a big gamble, but that comes from me not being a painter.
PRAGER: I just got this amazing vision of you as a painter.
ARMISEN: I have so much respect for that art form that I would never tiptoe into it in any careless way. I’m blown away by the fact that people do it.
PRAGER: I feel that way about other artwork. I cannot act. I cannot play music. But I don’t get to have the same feeling about painting. I’m always looking at it with that jaded or critical viewpoint. I think that’s a good point to end on.
DREAMERS OPENS TOMORROW, SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 21 AND WILL BE ON VIEW UNTIL MARCH 21 AT RICHARD HELLER GALLERY IN SANTA MONICA.